"What's a 'kleptocracy,' Dad?" asked my 12-year-old son in response to hearing a news story on the car radio. I took the opportunity to explain different types of government to him. Their names roll trippingly off the tongue: monarchy, autocracy, oligarchy, meritocracy, theocracy, democracy.
In the type of democracy we enjoy in the United States, the different branches of government can be controlled by different political parties, as in a Democratic president and a Republican Congress. This system of "checks and balances" designed by the country's Founding Fathers sometimes results in gridlock, with government unable to enact any significant legislation. That's the system in which we find ourselves at this point of history. We live in a gridlockracy.
This is not altogether a bad thing. Periods of divided government have produced some notable successes. A reluctant President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law amid predictions of it "shredding the safety net," yet the legislation is now generally regarded as one of the successes of his presidency. In the mid 1980s, the two parties came together to extend the life of the Social Security system.
The senior George Bush, a Republican, worked with Democrats in Congress to legislate modest tax increases and spending cuts. By the end of the decade, these resulted in the first government surplus since 1969. The debt-ceiling and "fiscal cliff" deals of late 2011 and early 2012 resulted in rapid shrinkage of the federal deficit.
What's common to these cases of successful evasion of grilockracy is that each was enacted in response to necessity. When the status quo is unsustainable, and action is unavoidable, the parties usually come together, even if unwillingly. The recent 113th congress was often chided for inaction, wasting its time on pointless exercises such as the 50 attempts in the House to get Obamacare repealed. When legislators busy themselves with these futile gestures, they occupy the time they would otherwise spend creating dodgy and expensive legislation.
In contrast, periods of united government, in which one party controls both houses of Congress as well as the presidency, can have awful results. The most recent example is the presidency of Bush junior. George W. inherited a budget surplus from Bill Clinton, with projections that the surplus would reach $2 trillion by the end of the decade.
With the help of a Republican congress, he then initiated the biggest spending spree in modern history. Discretionary spending grew by an astonishing 53% during his term in office. He simultaneously cut taxes. On top of that, he launched an unnecessary war with Iraq that ground on for a decade and cost another $2 trillion. Unsurprisingly, the surpluses vanished, to be replaced by staggering deficits.
When president Obama took office shortly after the economic collapse, he was faced with a $1.7 trillion dollar budget deficit. As Patrick Henry might have shouted, "Give me gridlockracy or give me debt!"
So while many pundits bemoan the impossibility that the Democratic president and the Republican 114th congress will "get anything done," I'm quite sanguine about the years ahead. At least a few of the most pressing problems are likely to get solved. A wave of bad legislation is unlikely. At least for the time being, I'm happy to tell my son we live in a gridlockracy.